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Marshall Hall

Born 1790-02-18
Died 1857-08-11

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English physiologist, born February 18, 1790, Basford, near Nottingham, died August 11, 1857, Brighton, East Sussex.

Biography of Marshall Hall

Marshall Hall, the son of the Wesleyan cotton manufacturer Robert Marshall, who was the first to use chloride gas on a large scale for bleaching cotton. Nothing is known of his mother, other than that she was eighty-four when she died. Hall was the first to advance a scientific explanation of reflex action.

Marshall Hall received his boyhood education until the age of fourteen at the Reverend J. Blanchards Academy at Nottingham. The then entered a chemists shop at Newark-on-Trent, and in 1809 began to study medicine at the Edinburgh University Medical School in October 1809. There he graduated Doctor of Medicine with distinction in 1812. He spent two years as Resident House Physician to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary

Following these two years of practice he went for the customary Continental tour (1814-1815), travelling in France and Germany, visiting the medical schools of Paris, Göttingen, and Berlin. He travelled alone and on foot from Paris to Göttingen. In 1815 he returned to England, settling in practice in Nottingham, where he was elected an honorary physician to the Nottingham General Hospital on October 12, 1825. His reputation as a physician was established by means of his clinical acumen and ability, as well as by his 1817 book on diagnosis, then a new topic. His fame also rested on his advocacy of diminished bleeding, based on the revolutionary statistical analyses of the French physician P. C. A. Louis.

In 1826 Hall moved to London where he continued in private practice until his death in 1853. He occasionally lectured at medical schools, but he was never on the staff of a hospital.

Hall denounced the practice of bloodletting in Observations on Blood-Letting (1830). In his Experimental Essay on the Circulation of the blood (1831) he was the first to show that the capillaries bring the blood into contact with the tissues.

Hall conducted his large private practice from his home, where he also carried out his experimental work. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1832 but, although he served on its member of the council, he received none of its honours. In 1841 he was made a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians of London and delivered there the Gulstonian and Croonian lectures.

Marshall Hall retired from practice in 1853 and died four years later of a cancerous oesophageal stricture. He was survived by his wife, whom he had married in 1829, and by his son, also named Marshall Hall, who became a famous barrister. The Marshall Hall fund provided until 1911 a prize every five years for the best work done in the anatomy, physiology, and pathology of the nervous system. Recipients include J. Hughlings Jackson, David Ferrier, and C. S. Sherrington.

As a person, Hall was considered a difficult man, insufferably conceited and overly aware of his brilliance and capacity, and with more opponents than friends and supporters. Yet Thomas Wakley, founder and editor of Lancet, was a firm friend and supported Hall’s claim that the merits of his work equaled those of William Harvey’s.  His wife’s biography of him, as might be expected, is entirely laudatory.

A prolific writer, Hall published over 150 papers and nineteen books.

Hall’s importance lies in his studies of the physiology of reflex function. These began in 1832 and continued for twenty-five years; he claimed that he had spent 25.000 leisure hours on them.

The concept of the reflex has its origins in antiquity, but Hall’s work was built upon the advances made in this field by Robert Whytt of Edinburgh, Albrecht von Haller of Göttingen, George Procháska of Prague, J. J. C. Legallois of Paris, and many others. By 1830 considerable knowledge existed of the isolated spinal cord and the reflex act, although virtually nothing was known of the underlying morphology. It was Hall’s contribution to elaborate the reflex concept, from an isolated action of the cord as he found it, into an established and essential physiological function.

Hall’s numerous experiments were carried out on such animals as turtles, hedgehogs, frogs, toads, lizards, and eels, and from them Hall formulated what he considered to be an independent spinal cord system of nerves subserving only reflex function. This mechanism had nothing to do with the nerves of volition and sensation or with consciousness and psychic activity, functions which were mediated by the brain.

Hall was the first to provide a basis for the concept of the neural arc of the spinal cord. Admittedly Charles Bell had hinted at this in 1826 and Hall had made use of the earlier work of François Magendie and of Bell concerning the motor and sensory spinal roots of the cord, but his originality is unassailable. Unfortunately, he paid no attention to the new knowledge of the microscopic appearances of nervous tissue in the 1830’s, and he totally ignored the possible influence of such cerebral mechanisms as psychic activity.

Halls insistence that the cerebrospinal axis is a functional segmental series, although not original, was recognized by Sherrington as a significant contribution.

Hall’s versatility and wide range of interests was impressing. Besides his work on medical topics he wrote on Greek grammar and was always ready to use his pen and his tongue to attack social evils. He campaigned for the abolition of slavery in America and of flogging in the British army, as well as for the improvement of sewage disposal and for the safety of railway compartments.

His discovery that a headless newt moves when its skin is being pricked led to a series of experiments that he summarized in the paper On the Function of the Medulla Oblongata and Medulla Spinalis, and on the Excito-Motory System of Nerves, 1837. This research served as the basis for his theory of reflex action, which stated that the spinal cord consists of a chain of units and that each unit functions as a independent reflex arc; that the function of each arc arises from the activity of sensory and motor nerves and the segment of the spinal cord from which these nerves originate; and that the arcs are interconnected, interacting with one another and the brain to produce coordinated movement.

The Royal Society refused to publish the paper and several on the subject, denouncing the theory as absurd. Yet the acclaim Hall's work received on the Continent led to studies that demonstrated the validity of his ideas. 

In 1831, Hall outlined five principles to govern animal experimentation.
1.    An experiment should never be performed if the necessary information could be obtained by observations.
2.    No experiment should be performed without a clearly defined and obtainable, objective.
3.    Scientists should be well-informed about the work of their predecessors and peers in order to avoid unnecessary repetition of an experiment.
4.    Justifiable experiments should be carried out with the least possible infliction of suffering (often through the use of lower, less sentient animals).
Every experiment should be performed under circumstances that would provide the clearest possible results, thereby diminishing the need for repetition of experiments.

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